Interview | Downtown Boys

Interview | Downtown Boys

By fusing a radical political agenda with a fundamentally punk approach to making art, Rhode Island’s agitprop combo Downtown Boys have created some of the most dynamic and stimulating music to have originated from America’s underground scene in more than a decade. The group’s guiding lights, lead vocalist Victoria Ruiz and guitarist Joey L De Francesco, fleshed out their politics of dissent for Kevin McGrath.

Kevin McGrath: Can you outline the genesis of Downtown Boys? How exactly did a bunch of friends, work colleagues and political activists combine to form the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll band in America?

Joey: First of all, thank you, you’re too nice. It was a few things coming together. Me and Norlan and our original bass player Dan were all in a brass band called What Cheer? Brigade. We had talked a lot about wanting to start another project that was going to be more explicitly politically minded, and less unwieldy than an 18 person brass band. So we started playing, then our friends Mariel and Emmett who we knew through various artistic and activist channels joined on saxophone. We played a couple shows with that line-up but they were sort of mediocre. I had known Victoria because we both worked at the same hotel, the Renaissance Providence Hotel. I worked in Room Service and she worked in the call center. We were working closely together on trying to unionize and win better conditions. She said something one day about wanting to be in a band and we decided she should be in this one. That’s when things started to really click. Then we’ve had a few changes, and have added Adrienne a couple years ago and Mary this past spring to our current line-up.

The first gigs that I ever went to, back in 79-80, were of groups that had coalesced around the Two-Tone label; The Specials and The Beat (known as The English Beat stateside) fused dance music – Ska and Blue-beat – with an aggressive anti-establishment stance, while UB40, a reggae outfit, scored a sequence of chart hits with songs about nuclear destruction, mass unemployment, atheism and racism. Are these bands that America remembers in any significant way?

Joey: That’s a great question. I can’t speak for America at large, but The Specials were definitely very important to me growing up. I had an aunt from Ireland who gave me that first Specials CD when I was in high school and the message and feeling of the whole thing had a big impact on me. A lot of people I know have similar feelings about The Specials. I still go to that record a lot. My aunt would tell me some stories about seeing them live that were captivating to me. I’ve also gotten into the English Beat though a bit later. UB40 is sadly known here mostly for “Red Red Wine” haha.

Downtown BoysAs someone who bought the Sham 69 single “If the Kids are United” on its release in 1978, I was interested to hear your version. How did you pick up on the song and do you have an affinity for British punk rock in general?

Victoria: We chose the song because of the lyrics and the message, which we interpreted to be a call for unity over individualism. It was pretty regardless of British punk rock or Sham 69. We chose to cover it for Rookie Mag, because we thought it was a cool message to share with young people, and Perfect Pussy had claimed a Bruce Springsteen cover the month before us…. so we couldn’t do Dancing in the Dark! But both songs are trying to fight alienation by things both big and small!

Your eponymous debut single, released through Sister Polygon records last year, was bilingual, containing songs in both English and Spanish, an approach which you’ve carried over to the album Full Communism. As well as reflecting your own backgrounds, and presumably, trying to reach out to as many people as possible, adopting a bilingual approach is a significant political statement in itself isn’t it?

Victoria: Bilingualism, multilingualism, as well as only speaking English in a country with so many people who speak other languages are all significant political statements. We have songs in English, Spanish, and Serbian! It is for sure for the reach and for the music.

I’m interested in why you’ve called the album Full Communism. The history of that word, particularly in an American context, might equate to box-office poison. It’s a provocative title, but doesn’t it just increase the risk that you simply end up preaching to the converted?

Joey: I think it’s always important to have hope for some more utopian future. Many people our age fall into a hopeless depressed nihilism, and we need to believe that we can reach something else. I don’t think it’s too useful to imagine what that means exactly, like parsing out which anarchist theorist we most identify with or anything. We’re definitely not interested in some kind of statist authoritarian Communism, that should be clear. We’re interested in destroying white supremacy, capitalism, queerphobia, transphobia, sexism, and all other forms of oppression. We’re interested in creating a kind of true freedom that hasn’t existed before. It’s hard to name that. “Utopia” sounds clichéd and meaningless. Full Communism is still a heavy sounding phrase, and it should be because the project of creating the new world is a heavy one.

Victoria: Imagine winning and liberation; that is full communism. It is something we all imagine. What will we do when it exists? What stuff will we take back for the people? What will we do with all the cop cars that will no longer be necessary? Full Communism invokes questions more than answers for me.

Victoria, you have a background as a social worker and a worker’s rights campaigner. How much have those day to day experiences informed your art? Are you telling the stories that you see all around you every day?

Yes! It’s a total chicken and egg situation. Haha. Everything is informed and influencing everything else. I don’t think I have ever been able to separate my personal experience of my identity from my paid wage jobs from my art jobs.

You speak very movingly about the respect you have for the singer Selena Quintanilla, why is she such an important influence on your life and your life’s work?

Selena was just such a “cross- over” artist. She truly had the Mexican border running through her art and it did not stop her! She actually was able to create these bridges between Mexicans born in U.S. like myself and Mexicans from Mexico. There is a lot of tension between these groups of people. I have experienced it my entire life, she was our leader into that storm and that is super important to me.

You cover Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” on the album. Is that meant to be ironic, or is it a straightforward acknowledgement of the boss’s solidarity with working class causes over the years?

Joey: The cover is zero percent ironic. We love Bruce Springsteen and we think his music is some of the most powerful popular music of the past half century. He speaks to our desperation and a hope as well as any lyricist out there. We’ve been upset so many outlets have labelled it as an ironic cover.

If you subscribe to Bacon’s view that knowledge is power, then the video for “Wave of History” sends out a vital message. Making information available that the authorities would rather bury six feet under, and then shaping those facts into a narrative account of American racism is both moving and instructive. After centuries following this path, how can America change course?

Joey: Right, we wanted to just directly express as much as we could get people to watch in those two minutes. We believe in being explicit. Subtlety gets co-opted. How America can change its course is too big a question to answer here. It’s going to take a massive redistribution of economic, political, and cultural power. And that power isn’t going to be given up. It will take mass movements. The #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to be instructive in how this needs to happen.

Victoria: That is the really surprising thing about this information; at this point, it all comes from Google searches. I think the issue is that we aren’t searching it enough. I have no idea how American can change course, I think that part of it will come when everyone is asked this question, not just self identified political people, groups or organizations. The idea that the police state is the final authority is a Euro-centric and White Supremacist idea. “Authority,” can be abolished by prioritizing liberation and the end to imperialism of the land, mind, and body. We must always come back to the land and think of that as the power shifter. Land and power are integral to each other, as are race and class.

The video was shot by Faye Orlove, had you worked together before?

Victoria: Yes! We work together on Fvck the Media. She has drawn Downtown Boys related illustrations before! As well as Selena illustrations!

Do you participate in mainstream politics? Do you have a view on the current campaigns to nominate the Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates?

Joey: Yeah, I don’t subscribe to the voting boycott point of view. I understand it, but I think you can view electoral politics as just one part of a larger organizing strategy. Like, yes the more important part is community and labor organizing and building movements, but voting isn’t something we should just give up. A lot of my radical friends want to make it seem like you’re a sell-out if you vote or something, but its bullshit, especially at the local level. We’ve gotten major victories in Providence because working people have gotten strong leftist candidates on the city council.

Donald Trump is a clear classical fascist. Rather than our slow descent into fascism, he represents a rapid fall. Bernie Sanders is an interesting character. He talked about socialism in a national presidential debate. That’s never happened in the USA. Of course he’s not a saviour, he has lots wrong with him, and we shouldn’t put too much energy into his candidacy. But I will vote for the guy. I think it would be lazy not to.

Victoria: Yeah!!! It’s logistical. You hafta door knock for the right people if you want them to win. We have to make what we want relevant, no one else will do that for us.

Are you fighting this battle alone? Or are there other bands standing shoulder to shoulder with you that we should be listening out for?

Victoria: There are a lot of people and bands. No one is perfect at this stuff or has all the answers. I would start with Wizard Apprentice, Moore Mother Goddess, Priests, Abdu Ali, MIA, the list can go on! Listen to what makes you think!

Demand Progress has just launched an arts and culture Webzine called Spark Mag .What will its function be and what is your involvement?

Joey: We’ve been working with them to launch that for a while! It’s a new site to specifically highlight radical musicians and artists, and connect the artists and fans with organizing work. Victoria had been working with them for a while working on other projects as well, and I had been working to build the site for most of this year. We finally got to launch it which is super exciting. We’ll continue to write for and edit the site.

You mentioned a little earlier that you and Victoria had been part of a campaign to unionize the Renaissance Providence Hotel and I understand that there’s now a worker called boycott of the Hotel. How is that progressing?

Joey: The workers at the Renaissance are continuing their usual fight but in fact won a National Labour Relations Board election in November 2015. This is a huge step forward, but the fight isn’t close to over yet. Winning the election just means that the hotel is supposed to begin negotiating a contract with workers, but again the hotel can hold this process up for years. So the hotel is still under a boycott and the fight continues until the hotel negotiates a fair contract.

What can we expect from Downtown Boys in 2016?

Joey: We’re coming to Europe in late May and early June! Exact dates and places will be coming shortly, but we’ll be over there soon which is really exciting for us. Other than that, we’re getting a lot of new songs together, so hopefully we’ll at the least record something new soon.

Victoria: Expect for us to continue to be angry and ready.